Hello from Moscow. Stephen Lapeyrouse here from the “English Language Discussion Club”, where you were a guest in April 1999. I heard a BBC report recently by you from Africa, and was sorry to realize that you had moved on to your next assignment far from Russia.
Call these the questions of a dying romantic... or perhaps the dying questions of a romantic (I’m not sure which is better, or worse, in inner fact: euthanasia, or a living disillusionment!) – but several thoughts came up in my mind when I understood your transfer from Russia to Africa. And, as it bears on the question of being a “reporter” (often now seemingly identical to a “correspondent”) and a sensitive, perceptive human being in our time of rapid and easy world travel, I hope the questions may be sufficiently interesting for you that you may find some time (in our overly-busy lives and time) to respond in some way to some of my questions, perhaps also for the readers of my national newspaper – English – in Russia.
Russia... East Africa. I don’t know where you worked before coming to Moscow, but to hear your report on 14 September from a ‘jungle airstrip in Africa’, after having grown accustomed to your dispatches and reports from Moscow or elsewhere in Russia, was a bit of an intellectual jolt. Several questions sprang to life. Is it possible, I immediately asked, to be able to report from Africa, or Russia (especially with such a contrast), as if each place did not have some fundamental, if elusive, unique character, some special reality which only some real, deep time living, breathing, being and knowing in each place could allow one, a “reporter”, a human being, to know? Can a “Westerner” (from one place or other) hop on a plane, and in a few weeks of intensive reading and reconnaissance be able to report on the life and reality of East Africa? Is the world actually “flat”, and I just like a latter-day redundant Herderian Romantic characteristically, if pitiably, believing that each place and people are somehow still unique? That unless we can find, sense, discern, experience this unique character, atmosphere, reality, combination of people, history, culture, tradition, ethos, geography, psychology, and social conditions, that one would simply be reporting variations on “the same ole thing” from anywhere and everywhere in the world? Must a reporter, like Goethe going his first time to Italy, then to Sicily, not become someone, somewhat, somehow, “new” and/or different, before they can report on the reality of life wherever they have journeyed to?
I have a T-shirt that I had made which reads in Russian:
Columbus helped make the world round; McDonald’s to make it flat again. In the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, the “Grand Tour” of Europe was made mostly by people who could afford it; and certainly there were then too some “tourists” who saw perhaps little but what their limited minds allowed.
Each sees what he bears in his own heart (Goethe). But since jet travel – possible only in the 20th century – has become available to the middle-classes, and others, one question is: are such people willing, interested, able to change, to molt, to grow to the new, different world that they travel to? The sameness of hotels, restaurants, bars, food, “culture” (entertainment), which most people experience in their “global travels” would suggest little or not. “Been there; done that!” is a new telling expression now already a cliché in America. The lowest and most insensitive of such travelers to a very “far-distant”, “exotic” place, complains if he or she cannot find his favorite burger and beer. Such travelers have “been there and done that”, but not really been very much of anywhere “new” at all! Unless perhaps something unplanned and unexpected happened to them! These are “shallow travelers”; there are others who are now desperately seeking out the very few remaining special, unique, “unknown”, untrodden places in the world – to experience something new, interesting, sometimes even something life-changing. But what of the psychology of a “reporter”, a “correspondent”? From Russia to East Africa, aside from the requirements, necessities and realities of the work of a reporter in our hasty day today...does a reporter not need to be in a place, to “live the place and people”, in order to come to know the place before they can report of life there? Or does the reporter – unchanged – simply travel wherever, and report the various “different” locations using the more or less same set of ideas, themes, topics, angles, etc? And report back to what general, mass audiences have a mind to hear and understand? (Here, clearly, are two problematic factors, filters – the reporter’s and the radio audiences’.) Kant is famed for discerning and articulating the limits of the categories of the human mind; does a BBC reporter, presumably raised in middle-class England, with the mind, culture and education of people there in our time today, not have a pre-set, a grid, a limit of ideas, emotions, categories, perceptions, etc, via and through which they see and experience everything? Or the BBC, as a media to the many masses, have limitations as to what they can “think”, experience, and say? Can all reporters fit themselves to the realities around them? Or not?
Goethe journeyed to Rome with much deep anticipation and hope, and he became, as he said, a “new man” there. In going from Russia to East Africa, must you not also somehow/somewhat become “new” in order to report on the different world there? Am I just romanticizing? Or are we become “flat” men and women, seeing a “flat” world wherever we look or go? Or perhaps Columbus was wrong? Or the “McDonaldization” of mankind too strong?
Are you instructed by the BBC World Service to allow/make yourself to change when you go from reporting Russia to East Africa? Or is such psychological change not ever considered, mentioned? In sum, my “romantic” question: are you sure as a person and reporter that your British-BBC ideas are able to perceive the realities of East Africa, and that they did so in your time in Russia? (Note: I enjoyed your reports from Russia! Which is why I invited you to the language club.) Is there some psychic mutation and adjustment involved? Necessary?
Please let me know how you see these matters. Or are you, in East Africa, as very busy as in Moscow...and so have little time for such letters and romantic queries?
Don’t forget us in Russia, in your reports from Africa!
First published in the magazine English, #21, 2001, p. 12.